Monday, March 21, 2016 | 2 a.m.
As they say, rule No. 1 for keeping upbeat is surrounding yourself with positive people who keep you smiling. I feel blessed to have some Nevada heroes in my life, role models whose words of wisdom I recall when I’m down on my luck or in need of inspiration.
Despite their high-level jobs, former Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa and Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas, two people I’ve known for years, don’t hesitate to talk about how they’ve overcome sexism and racism as the first female and the first black person to hold senior positions in Nevada government. I’ve never tired of hearing their stories of triumph over tragedy because I’ve always thought, “If they can overcome difficulties — and stay positive — so can I.”
Del Papa, 66, who was raised in Tonopah and lives in Reno, calls everyone “honey,” likes to hang out in coffee shops and truly understands average Nevadans who struggle through life. As a career politician known for her battles against domestic violence and teen pregnancy, she has talked to them a lot.
She is a woman of words.
“Positive living and thinking,” she always reminds me, “comes from what you tell yourself.” She loves her books and quotes from them often.
When I ask for her happiness secret, she cites the serenity prayer and Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” and “There are only three things you can do in life when a bad situation comes up. You can change it, you can ignore it, or you can accept it.”
From her days as UNR student body president to her three terms as attorney general, Del Papa faced a lot of sexism. When she left for law school in Washington, D.C., in 1971, she didn’t get a badly needed Nevada scholarship because, she was told, “Women don’t finish law school.”
“Lots of people have given me the thumbs-down at parades; I’ve been banned from some of the potentially best fundraising events in Nevada, which are stag parties,” she said. And, despite her 20 years as secretary of state, higher education regent and attorney general, she decided against running for Nevada governor, in 1998, and the U.S. Senate, in 2000, because she couldn’t raise enough money.
Many women might end up devastated and bitter, but Del Papa embraced her new life after politics, reminding herself of her mother’s favorite saying.
“If everyone put their problems on a table, you would walk away with your own before walking away with someone else’s.”
Like Del Papa, Douglas, 68, didn’t have an easy time building a career in Nevada. As a young black lawyer from a prestigious law school, he took a job at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, defending low-income Nevadans, in 1982. As he puts it, “There were very few black attorneys in Las Vegas at the time.”
His first day in a Nevada courtroom was shocking.
“I was dressed in a three-piece suit, ready to present my case,” he said. “The judge looked at me and said that since I was appearing without counsel, he was going to forfeit my case.” The opposing counsel had to inform the judge that Douglas was the counsel.
Such blatant racism nearly 35 years ago didn’t keep him from working his way up to his current seat on the Nevada Supreme Court. In telling his story about his first day in a Nevada court, he always reminds me of the important point: “You can’t let the actions or words of one ignorant person get in your way.”
These days, when he’s not in his chambers or in court, he spends much of his time talking to students all over the state about helping the less fortunate. Like Del Papa, he keeps involved in the community, attending events such as award ceremonies for Nevada’s leading pro bono attorneys. He especially loves judging Clark County’s annual “We The People” contest, part of a nationwide high school competition involving the U.S. Constitution.
“When you help others, when you contribute to society, you feel good about yourself,” he said. “When you volunteer to do things you’ll meet like-minded people. When you’re down, drowning in your self-pity, the world walks on top of you. You can’t make a difference by just sitting there.
“In my job, I’m not just a public servant, I’m a role model, especially to other minorities who hope to become an attorney in this state. I tell them the importance of knowing who you are, and not letting others put you down or define you because of your race.
“If you fail, that means you’re trying. The more you try, the more you build your self-worth.”
Del Papa and Douglas, two terrific sources of inspiration.
Kim Palchikoff is studying social work at UNR and writes about mental health. Her Twitter handle is @NVmindsmatter.